“Of Mice and Men” - Themes
"Of Mice and Men" by John Steinbeck is an interesting novel which reveals thought-provoking themes like the importance of friendship and the misery of loneliness through effective characterisation.
Migrant American workers George and Lennie
, travel together to find work. They are very close friends and George looks after Lennie, who has the mental ability of a young child. At the beginning of the novel they arrive at a ranch in Soledad where they make friends but also enemies. Later in the novel the wife of the ranch owner's son, Curly, is killed by Lennie. George is then burdened with the dreadful position of deciding whether or not to kill his companion Lennie. George realises that he has to kill him to prevent Lennie being murdered brutally by Curly.
One of the first themes the reader becomes aware of when reading the novel is the importance of friendship. George and Lennie are used by Steinbeck to effectively convey this theme. At the beginning of the novel it may appear that George is fed up of Lennie
, as he seems to insult him all the time. However the reader begins to realise that it had been an exhausting journey and George was perhaps taking out some of his frustration on his friend. George has taken on quite a responsibility in caring for Lennie and that most of his actions are just a way of him looking out for Lennie:
""Lennie, for God's sake don't drink so much. You
gonna be sick like you were last night!""
This illustrates that George is protecting Lennie and making sure that he is not sick due to gulping down too much water. George's protection of Lennie is also shown when Lennie has a dead mouse in his possession:
""I don't know why I can't keep it ... I found it lyin'
right beside the road""
George asks Lennie to give him the mouse which shows that George is trying to protect Lennie from diseases the dead mouse may have. Playing with a dead mouse may be the typical behaviour of a child but is not normal for a grown man. Therefore it also conveys the extent to which George has to watch Lennie.
Further on in the novel it is apparent that George is gaining just as much from the friendship as Lennie. In a conversation with the ranch foreman Slim, George tells him:
""But you get used to going around with a guy, an you can't get rid of him''''
This shows that George has grown accustomed to being with Lennie and they rely on each other because they spend everyday together and have a very strong friendship. He also tells Slim that:
“I seen the guys that go around on the ranches alone. that ain't no good. They don't have no fun. After a long time they get mean. They get wantin' to fight all the time.’
This shows that he is gaining something very important from the friendship, a life free from violence and bitterness.
At the end of the novel, when Curly's wife is killed by Lennie, George has to make the life changing decision of whether or not to kill Lennie, or let Curly kill him which would be a slow, painful and horrific death. George makes the decision that he must shoot Lennie himself. When George eventually finds Lennie sitting by the pool, Lennie is panic-stricken and tries to get George to reassure him that it is going to be fine. Lennie keeps apologising to George who accepts his apologies easily because he knows what he is going to have to do. One of the most moving parts of this novel is the final conversation between th~ two friends:
"I thought you was mad at me George''
“ No Lennie. I ain't mad. I never been mad and
I ain't now"
This confirms that George wants Lennie to be "at peace" when he dies and to assure him that they are still friends. This is thoughtful of George because it would settle Lennie and calm him down. Before he shot Lennie, George told him to look out across the lake. George encouraged Lennie to think about their dream of having their own house and farm animals. One of the most distressing parts of the episode is the realisation of how difficult it is for George to have to kill his closest friend but the reader understands that he acts out of love for Lennie.
Another theme the novel explores is the misery of loneliness. Many of the characters in the novel suffer in this way. Crooks, a black man who works at the ranch is a character who strongly conveys this theme. Crooks is very lonely and when not working spends his time in his room because he is not welcome to participate in games or talk to the other men on the ranch. He receives this treatment because he is black:
•••• I can't play because I'm black''''
This suggests that Crooks has given up trying to join in, and understands that his fellow workers will never accept him because of the colour of his skin. This is not only very unfair for Crooks but also racist. In chapter 4 Steinbeck effectively portrays the misery experienced by Crooks:
''I' A guy needs somebody - to be near him.'''' He whined '''' A guy goes nuts if he ain't got nobody.""
He explains here how people go insane if they do not have anyone to rely on or be there for them.
Curly's wife is another character who is lonely. At the beginning of the novel she is conveyed as being a promiscuous woman. She is always hanging around the workers trying to engage them in conversation and as a result is labelled "a tart".
However in chapter 5, when she has an in-depth conversation with Lennie the reader finds that she was just lonely and wanted a friend to talk to; someone who would listen to her and value her company unlike her husband Curly. Curly did not love or care for her at all. He just enjoyed having control over his wife:
"" standin' here talking to a bunch of bindle stiffs, a nigger an' a dum-dum and a lousy 01' sheep - an' likin it because they ain't nobody else.''''
This shows that she just resorts to talking to the workers because Curly does not pay her any attention. There is no female company for her on the ranch. This is difficult because she does not have anyone to share interests with. Sadly many of the men do not want to return her friendship because it will put them on the wrong side of Curly:
"" Ain't I got a right to talk to nobody.''''
This confirms that she feels isolated and unable to talk to anyone. Curly does not allow her to talk to anyone because he is insecure and becomes jealous easily.
Candy is another character Steinbeck uses to convey the theme of loneliness. Candy, an old man, with only one hand, who has been on the ranch for a while has no family or friends. He has no close companions and is extremely lonely when he hears George and Lennie's idea about buying their farmhouse. Candy is quick to ask about being a part of it:
""I'd make a will an' leave my share to you guys incase I kick off 'cause I ain't got no relatives nor nothing.
He offers to put a substantial amount of money into the house and when he dies he promises to leave everything to George and Lennie because he has no one else. This illustrates that Candy is very lonely and desperate to be part of George and Lennie's dream. Candy offers to leave everything to them so they will seriously consider letting him be part of it:
""I won't have no place to go.''''
This shows that he is desperate for a place to live after he leaves the ranch.
The final theme that Steinbeck explores is that of dreams. Many of the characters have dreams, which is not unusual because they are essential for our well being even if they do not, afterwards come true. George and Lennie are used effectively to convey the theme of dreams. Their dream is to own a small farmhouse, raise animals on the farm and grow crops. Sharing this dream keeps them going and encourages them to work hard so they can get enough money. Sadly George and Lennie's dream is shattered when George has no choice but to shoot his friend. The reader is left feeling extremely sorry for George because he has looked after Lennie for all these years and they have shared this dream together. Now George has no interest in the dream:
""I think I knowed from the very first. I think I
knowed we'd never do her.""
This suggests that George always knew that it was just a dream and that it would never happen. George only started believing it because Lennie always asked George to tell him what the dream was, like a young child would. It shows that George hung onto the dream for hope.
Curly's wife is another character used to convey this theme. She has a dream of being in the movies and having a glamorous life-with beautiful clothes and lots of money. Her dream ended long before Lennie took her life because she became stuck in a loveless marriage with Curly. He did not allow her to do anything and hardly allowed her to talk to anyone. It is almost as if her death is a release from her life, where she was .imprisoned in a marriage where her husband did not care for her:
"" Coulda been in the movies, an' had nice c1othes ... I
coulda sat in them big hotels, an' had pitchers took of me.""
"Of Mice and Men" is a novel that I really enjoyed, not only for its interesting and moving story but also for its thought-provoking themes. It has made me think about how humans relate to one another, how important friendship is and how loneliness can leave a person feeling miserable. In addition Steinbeck reminds us that dreams are necessary but seldom come true.